The coronavirus pandemic has thrown individuals and businesses alike into the unknown.
For companies, there was the challenge of staying afloat in a world that had come to a halt; for people, it was about juggling the competing priorities of work, family and home. Now everyone faces a new issue: how to return to some semblance of business normality.
“The world of work – particularly how we think about work and how we think about where we work, has fundamentally shifted,” says coach and productivity expert Karen Eyre-White. “A lot of businesses have been in crisis mode. What we’re seeing now is them having to get back to a new normal with strategy, boundaries and structure in place.”
Some things haven’t changed. As before, high productivity will be a priority – particularly given the gloomy economic predictions. Achieving it depends on motivation, training and technology, time management and support from others. But how can businesses make sure they have these essentials in place as we move out of lockdown and get back to work?
Have clarity of purpose
With so much uncertainty around, business leaders need to reassure staff by projecting confidence and clarity wherever possible. “Try to be certain about as much as you can,” says Eyre-White, whether that involves scheduling regular catch-up meetings, or deciding the office won’t reopen until next year. Managers can boost their own productivity and that of their team by being clear about their priorities for any given day or week, and encouraging others to do the same.
Aligning those priorities with the company’s objectives will keep even a remote team moving in the right direction, says Chris Bailey, author of Hyperfocus: How to Work Less to Achieve More. “The greatest challenge that businesses face in normal times is orienting what everybody’s working on toward what the purpose of the business is … and that’s still the case,” he says. “The more intentional we are about how we work and what we work on, the more productive we become.”
Where priorities have changed, it’s important to communicate that effectively to staff, says Sarah Manning, senior HR director at Zendesk, a customer relationship management software company. “I can’t imagine many organisations didn’t have to pivot in some way in lockdown. Leaders need to be really clear now about what the expectation of their teams are going to be and put in measures to help people adapt.”
Empower staff to find their way of working
Productivity can be difficult to measure, but focusing on the tasks achieved rather than the hours someone is at their desk can boost efficiency. Despite reports that lockdown led to an upsurge in demand for workforce surveillance tools, Eyre-White says that such an approach is unlikely to be effective. “Individually, everyone needs to do different things in order to be productive,” she adds. “I just do not see how a surveillance system is compatible with that.”
Instead, businesses should be encouraging staff to find what works for them – some people might be most productive if they go for a walk in the morning, others might take short breaks after 45 minutes of focused work, while some team members might need to work around a young family at home.
Projecting empathy for the circumstances many of us find ourselves in is important, says Manning. Particularly at present. “Life is crazy right now. I think employers need to acknowledge that.”
Promote good communication
When it comes to managing virtual teams, good communication is key to ensuring staff feel supported and informed. “Once a company has made a decision, communicate it clearly,” says Manning. “You need to be careful not to go out with half a message and cause a whole lot of anxiety for people.”
Keeping communication channels open can promote a culture of collaboration.
Apps such as Zoom, Slack, other digital tools and internal help desks can help ensure “people still feel engaged, connected and therefore invested”, says Manning. Zendesk, for example, has held remote quizzes, yoga classes and Friday night drinks during lockdown. There are other examples of companies holding digital book clubs, remote murder mystery games, and scavenger hunts.
“Anything you can do as a manager to foster meaningful connections between employees will go a long way,” Bailey says.
It’s OK to have down time
Staff may be working from home, but it’s important not to encourage an “always on” culture that blurs the boundaries between work life and home life, Eyre-White says. “There’s this idea of e-presenteeism and needing to be seen,” she adds. “Staff can’t be seen in the office so they may feel they need to be replying to their emails or messages instantly. And that’s not how you get productive work done. You need time away from those things. Businesses need to be clear that it’s OK.”
One way to set the tone is to offer training to managers to help them adapt to working with, and supporting, remote teams. Simple measures can set an example, such as resisting the temptation to email outside work hours, and blocking out time for breaks on a calendar that the team has access to.
No one should feel guilty about taking a break from work, says Bailey. “Focusing on things all day long is one of the worst things we can do because our mind just needs a chance to wander. Mind the guilt that you experience around relaxation and know that it’s a phenomenon most of us experience.”
Alongside the difficulties of the past few months, for many firms there have also been opportunities for lasting change.
“If going remote didn’t kill a business, companies are going to have to decide their answer when employees ask: ‘Can I work from home?’” Manning says. “There are huge benefits from a cost perspective … and I do think companies can potentially attract more candidates and more diversity.”
Staying flexible – and that might mean some staff work remotely in the long term – will help foster an inclusive, productive culture that has broader benefits.
“This has definitely opened our eyes up to those different possibilities,” Manning adds. “We are going to have a much more flexible approach to where people can work and how they work.”
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